Monte Part 1: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back

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You might remember that, a couple of months back, Sébastien Loeb made an emotional farewell to the WRC at the end of his ninth straight title-winning campaign. If you hadn’t been paying much attention, therefore, one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about when the new season starts and there’s a very familiar name at the top of the leaderboard.

Yes, you guessed it: Loeb leads the Monte Carlo Rally in the first of his four ‘farewell’ outings with Citroën this year.

The old master hasn’t had it all his own way, though. His former team-mate Sébastien Ogier set the pace to start with, showing that the new Volkswagen squad really did get its sums right and has started its debut WRC campaign as it means to go on. But then Loeb went fully 10 seconds faster through the next stage and now holds an advantage of almost seven seconds at the first halt.

With Ogier in second place, third spot is held by the second Citroën of Dani Sordo. The asphalt expert is more than half a minute in arrears of Ogier, however, and he in turn has the Ford Fiesta of M-Sport’s Juho Hänninen breathing down his neck. This is seriously good news for Hänninen, the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge winner, who only has a deal to contest two events with M-Sport at present. Nevertheless it is the Finn who leads the four-car M-Sport entry from his team-mate, Thierry Neuville, holding fourth.

Meanwhile M-Sport’s leading drivers for this year have yet to find their feet in the Alpes Maritimes. Team leader Mads Østberg is seventh, just 0.4 seconds ahead of Evgeny Novikov in the sister car. Between them and the faster Fiestas of Hänninen and Neuville are Citroën’s season-long team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who is running in close company with the works-supported Citroën of 2011 Monte winner, Bryan Bouffier as they hold sixth and seventh respectively.

Jari-Matti Latvala has meanwhile been struggling in the second Volkswagen Polo. The Finn incurred a time penalty for being late arriving at SS2 and has not yet found great pace. He holds ninth ahead of the Czech National Team Fiesta WRC of Martin Prokop.

Elsewhere, the WRC2 is led by Olivier Burri’s Peugeot 207 S2000 from the Škoda Fabia S2000 of Sepp Wiegand. Most of the retirements so far have hit in this class, including that of Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot.

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M-Sport names Hänninen – edited

HänninenFinland gets another top-line driver in the WRC for 2013 with the announcement that former Škoda ace Juho Hänninen will compete in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta.

Hänninen won the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge and the 2011 Super 2000 World Rally Championship at the wheel of a Fabia S2000 but left the Czech squad at the end of this season. Although initially plans were made for him to compete in a MINI WRC next year, the withdrawal of Ford made a top-line seat available and Hänninen brings not only talent but, crucially, sufficient sponsorship funding to suit team boss Malcolm Wilson’s needs.

“I want to thank Škoda for the past four years,” said Hänninen in an M-Sport statement. “Together we won all we aimed for, but unfortunately the two-year programme they offered me wouldn’t have taken my career forward. My life’s ambition has been to compete at the highest level of rallying, in WRC, and succeed there. Now my wish has come true with the car M-Sport will provide me.”

Hänninen’s regular co-driver, Mikko Markkula, will co-drive for Andreas Mikkelsen in the works Volkswagen on next year’s WRC, the Finn welcomes experienced countryman, Tomi Tuominen, on board for 2013. With 21 WRC starts to his name, Tuominen has navigated for the likes of Sebastian Lindholm and Toni Gardemeister.

“I´ve known Tomi for years,” said Hänninen. “He´s an experienced co-driver and I believe our co-operation will be great.”

A brief history of WRC promotion

Much is being said about the commercial rights of the WRC at present, so let’s take a little look back through the last 25 years of the sport’s rollercoaster ride through popular culture.

In 1987, Jean-Marie Balestre, in his role as president of FISA, the worldwide governing body for motor sport, was encouraged to appoint Bernie Ecclestone to the role of vice-president of promotional affairs, with authority over all of its motor sport series.

Balestre was so encouraged by Max Mosley, the then-president of the FISA Manufacturers’ Commission, as a means of bringing ‘peace in our time’ to the endless squabbling over control of the commercial rights to Formula One. Something to do with keeping friends close and enemies closer, no doubt came to mind…

Bernie and Balestre – an unlikely double-act

Right away Ecclestone’s department at FISA focused its efforts on squeezing every last cent out of Formula One. One of its first moves, for example, was cancelling the hugely successful World Touring Car Championship at the end of its first season in 1987 in order to encourage greater participation in Grand Prix racing from sponsors and manufacturers.

Rallying generally escaped such terminal attentions, however – indeed, Ecclestone’s department generally improved matters.

Have you ever noticed that footage of the Group B era, for example, is as rare as hen’s teeth? That’s because if an event was filmed (and not all were) it was by domestic broadcasters for domestic TV coverage and the subsequent tapes were scattered to the four winds.

In his FISA role, Ecclestone ensured that a consistent season-long approach was taken to filming WRC events by his production and distribution company, International Sportsworld Communicators (ISC). It all worked rather well – even if ISC reported that the 1990 Swedish Rally showed a large increase in spectator numbers and global TV viewership…  a Herculean achievement when it was cancelled due to lack of snow and replaced with a rallysprint!

ISC brought order – and coverage – to the WRC in early 1990s

ISC’s footage was made available to national broadcasters in a season-long deal alongside Formula One events. If you wanted one, you took the other – and for a while everything was rolling along very nicely, in many ways.

Meanwhile, in 1991, Max Mosley ousted Balestre as FISA president and subsequently became FIA president in 1993, absorbing FISA back into its parent organisation. Again, the WRC largely escaped any direct attention as a result of this move, not least because of the furore that followed the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

When the dust finally settled in Formula One, however, a new fly arrived in the ointment for the Mosley-Ecclestone FIA: the European Union.

FIA fell foul of EU competition laws under Mosley’s reign

A Statement of Objections lodged with the EU argued that the FIA had violated existing antitrust legislation and had abused its licensing power and its ownership of the commercial rights to all 16 FIA championships – including the rights to TV broadcasting and other commercial exploitation of those rights through ISC.

After much blood, sweat and tears in court, the EU found against the FIA in 2000 and it was ordered to break up its commercial alliance with Ecclestone. As a result the role of vice-president of promotional affairs at the FIA disappeared, and Ecclestone sold ISC, together with the WRC’s commercial rights, to a consortium led by Prodrive founder David Richards.

Richards paid the FIA $50 million for the 10-year rights to the sale of television, merchandising, licensing and advertising of the WRC, using cash generated by selling 49% of Prodrive to venture capital company Apax Partners & Co. Immediately changes began to be made to the way in which the WRC was promoted – and many of these changes proved successful on the surface of things.

David Richards went from co-driver to team owner to ringmaster

Manufacturer involvement was still strong, with Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, SEAT, Škoda and Subaru being joined by Citroën. The Junior WRC was also thriving in quality and quantity and the Production Cup offering national-level participants their chance to take part in WRC events.

The sport was also at the cutting edge of the computer simulator market, with its own products alongside those endorsed by star drivers such as Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen. There was also an international magazine, RallyXS, produced by the British publisher Haymarket, aimed squarely at appealing to the same readership as its glossy sister F1 Racing.

Nevertheless, the foundations were already starting to give way. For starters the exodus of manufacturers was already taking hold. SEAT was gone at the end of 2000, Mitsubishi’s full-house effort ended in 2002, Hyundai abandoned ship in 2003, Peugeot and Škoda in 2005. Suzuki came and went in a season, as BMW brand MINI later would, but commitment to the cause was signally lacking.

Worse still, the WRC’s star drivers, who did so much to propel it in the 1990s, were also falling by the wayside. By the end of 2005 it had lost Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Markko Märtin, Francois Delecour, Gilles Panizzi, Didier Auriol and the sport had entered an age of complete supremacy for one man: Sébastien Loeb.

The days before Loeb: big guns battling in different cars

In October 2007, North One Television purchased ISC from Richards, promoting Simon Long from within the company to become CEO of the newly-renamed North One Sport. ISC was in trouble, reporting a £2.2m operating loss for the series – but North One saw something special.

“We’re moving in a dizzying and vastly different media world than when we first came into the sport,” said North One Television CEO Neil Duncanson. “Together with the teams, the events and the FIA our aim is to ensure the sport takes its rightful place in the digital era.”

Erm… right.

From that point on, the one drum that the remaining manufacturers repeatedly thumped under North One’s control was that nothing was being done to modernise the WRC’s promotion – it was not being taken online, out to the public or indeed doing anything much at all.

The reason was that it cost around £8 million a season to film the WRC, and without the substantial promotional funds previously provided by the manufacturers and sponsors, North One Sport was reliant on the income from its baseball caps and computer games rather than substantial corporate investment.

Simon Long, North One Sport. Smiling.

Without big brands to invest in the promotion or buy TV advertising around the WRC programmes, the great slump towards pay-to-view TV obscurity accelerated, while sourcing vital funds needed to develop the WRC as an online product were never found. A new recession loomed in which Subaru departed, Ford cut its budgets and Loeb’s grasp upon the title was unshakable.

The   advent of cheap and plentiful mini-cameras meant that the vast majority of WRC footage was shot from inside the cars, rather than from expensive helicopters flying overhead and remote camera crews out on the stages. Quality plunged in line with expenditure.

At the start of 2011, North One Television sold North One Sport to Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), a company belonging to the ambitious Russian entrepreneur and investor, Vladimir Antonov, who had recently purchased the Dutch supercar concern Spyker and the troubled Swedish giant Saab as well as Portsmouth Football Club.

Vladimir Antonov – a colourful character!

Some dubious noises had been made by the Swedish police about their investigations into Vladimir Antonov’s purchase of Saab, which were subsequently disproved in the USA. Nevertheless it was clear that this was going to be a colourful chapter in the WRC’s history. For his part, Simon Long was extremely upbeat about his new bosses, saying:

“Well, there’s going to be no shortage of action or momentum… Over the course of the current season you can expect to see a number of new innovations being unveiled. I can’t go any detail right now but it’s safe to say they will create a huge buzz when they are launched.”

How right he was!

On 23 November 2011, it was announced that a Europe-wide arrest warrant had been issued for Antonov by Lithuanian prosecutors wanting to question him as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Snoras Bank. He was arrested in London the following day and appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, while his properties were seized. A court hearing regarding Antonov’s extradition will be held in London on 21 January 2013.

In the absence of Antonov and CSI’s funds, North One attempted to continue as WRC promoter into 2012, but was stripped of all responsibilities on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally by a furious FIA.

“The FIA sought urgent unequivocal assurances from North One Sport (NOS) that it could fulfil its contractual obligations and deliver the promotion of the upcoming Rally Monte Carlo and the Championship for 2012 and for the future,” it said.

“It is with regret and disappointment that no such assurance has been given to the FIA, and therefore today the FIA has been driven to terminate its contract with NOS.”

Jean Todt – FIA president un’appy with WRC in 2012

So it is that the 2012 WRC season has been promoted through a cobbled-together mix of budgets hastily thrown together by each event, ranging from small to tiny. There has been considerable rancour pointed in every direction, and it is this that the new incumbents at Red Bull Media House have inherited.

In all honesty, the WRC should be dead and buried. It is only the spectacle, the sport and the fans who have kept it alive – as defiant in the face of the odds as Petter Solberg’s dreams of winning a second title during the ‘Loeb era’. But here we are… now is not the time for the divisive comment being made before the new era is ushered in.

The FIA has given Red Bull Media House all the oxygen it can, in the shape of a calendar that strenuously avoids date clashes with the Formula One world championship at every possible turn. It also has the pick of the most famous events in the world, with the demise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Then there’s the all-star Volkswagen Motorsport team arriving in a huge parade of elephants and dancing girls in Monte Carlo, with the existing and highly-professional setups at Citroën Racing and M-Sport saved from extinction by an influx of Middle Eastern cash.

Both M-Sport and Citroën Racing should celebrate their survival

As if all that weren’t enough, the 2013 will not be won by Sébastien Loeb. The old boy will turn up and sprinkle some magic on a handful of events, but leave the title race to a new generation, including Sébastien Ogier, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Andreas Mikkelsen. These youngsters will keep established men like Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen, Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala on their toes.

Beyond 2013 a team from Hyundai is coming, while teams from Toyota and Subaru are expected. Plus there is plenty more young talent out there to be discovered and new stars to be born in the public eye.

It’s been a terribly sad decade for the sport, but the WRC can go in only one of two directions. It can be great once again or it can finally founder and die – and that responsibility is upon all of us who purport to care about it.

Fløene unhappy to say goodbye

Although there were celebrations this weekend following Andreas Mikkelsen’s successful Intercontinental Rally Challenge title defence – the first and last time anyone will claim that honour twice – there were some recriminations, too.

Mikkelsen bade a fond farewell to his longtime co-driver Ola Fløene by letting him use his privilege to take the wheel of their Škoda Fabia S2000 for the final stage of their final event together, the Rally Cyprus. Yet while the hugs were forthcoming and Mikkelsen was looking forward to 2013 ‘with Volkswagen… still part of the Škoda family’ his 43-year-old co-driver looked somewhat bereft.

Mikkelsen in the limelight, now Fløene feels aggrieved

‘It was not my decision,’ said Fløene, when asked whether he was looking forward to retirement after 18 years at the top level, of which six have been alongside the burgeoning talent of Mikkelsen. Pressed to say whether it was his or Mikkelsen’s decision, he said: ‘I don’t want to go, but it is someone else’s decision.’

It puts a slightly bitter aftertaste on the season for his young driver, who stands on the threshold of a drive with Volkswagen’s €100 million superteam after a disastrous start to his international career. Being blessed with good funding, Mikkelsen made his WRC debut in 2007 while still in his teens, but wrecked a lot of cars along the way. He went back to Norway in 2009 before joining the Hankook-funded Opel squad in the IRC, showing far greater maturity and earning his Škoda UK-backed drive for 2011.

To start with it appeared that Mikkelsen was back to his wild ways, crashing out of the Monte Carlo Rally after just a few corners. Nevertheless he buckled down and won the title, repeating the feat this season – achievements which both reflect the confidence shown in him by the man in the co-driver’s seat.

Clearly Fløene is aggrieved by the decision to put a new, as-yet unannounced new man in the right hand seat of Mikkelsen’s Polo WRC next year. Understandably so, it would seem.

Au revoir, IRC

This weekend in Cyprus brought the end of the Intercontinental Rally Championship, with its catchphrase of ‘New Rally – New Generation’ biting the dust after just seven years.

So, was it a success or a failure?

Since it was founded before the 2006 season, the IRC has lived and breathed as an expression of how rally people themselves wanted a major international series to be run. Although sanctioned by the FIA, it all-but removed itself from the governing body’s influence, and was allowed to grow in a way that quickly showed how much appetite there is for the sport around the world.

The IRC has been hugely popular with teams and fans

International rallying was in decline by 2005 but, in South Africa, Toyota and Volkswagen had been the first to explore the potential of Super 2000 regulations – the accepted standard for touring car racing – for building cost-effective and spectacular rally cars. These early experiments showed that the formula worked.

S2000 also caught the eye of Eurosport, which had endured a long and frustrating relationship with the WRC. It had the resources and gathered the expertise needed to put on a made-for-TV rally series, cherry-picking an outstanding calendar of events to televise across its global platforms and it put the whole show under the ringmaster’s whip of Italian promoter Marcello Lotti, with the FIA’s blessing.

Lotti, who also looked after the FIA-approved World Touring Car Championship, made sure that the events themselves felt the love of this ‘new rally – new generation’ known as the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Eurosport Events meanwhile ensured that the competitors felt the love too – bringing in such experienced hands as former driver and team principal Jean-Pierre Nicolas to nurture the competitive side of the series.

Fiat opened the S2000 floodgates in Europe with IRC success

The IRC was open to production-spec 4WD and 2WD cars, but it was the S2000 machinery which delivered the thrills – and they came en masse. In 2006 Fiat stole a march on the rest of the European competition to produce the Grande Punto S2000 as a means of bringing back the fabled Abarth name, claiming the inaugural IRC title with home-grown hero Giandomenico Basso.

Soon the cost-effective S2000 platform was pulling in the numbers as Peugeot, Skoda, Proton, MG, MINI, Volkswagen and Opel delivering cars that were soon vying for honours in the series. What worked for the manufacturers was that there was very little onus on them to do very much. Producing an S2000 car and stumping up the championship registration fee was a cheap and easy way to get major promotion from the Eurosport organisation.

Variety came courtesy of affordable formula

With the WRC losing teams like leaves in autumn, the IRC swiftly became the only viable place for emerging talent at the wheel, bringing real recognition to the likes of Nicolas Vouilloz, Anton Alén, Jan Kopeçky, Kris Meeke, Juho Hänninen and Andreas Mikkelsen. It also provided a relaxed yet completely professional forum for events of such quality as Madeira, the Safari and Monte Carlo.

That was, perhaps, the IRC’s greatest masterstroke. Under the FIA’s ‘rotation system’ it was proposed that events should alternate years on the WRC calendar with years hosting the IRC. When the biggest event of them all, the Rallye Monte Carlo, was forced off the WRC calendar in 2009 to make way for the Rally Ireland, it found that the young pretender was actually a very decent series to do business with – and flat refused to host the WRC again until this year!

Monte Carlo Rally clung to IRC status in 2009-11

Yes, there were issues – not the least being that IRC events were often twinned with those of the European championship and national series in the host nations. This meant that cars like Subaru Impreza Group N cars could be running strongly on the road, but not feature in the official results – causing no little friction in the editorial offices at Autosport magazine in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

But these were little issues. The fact remains that the IRC brought the spotlight to rallies, teams and drivers of impeccable quality who would have stood no chance of achieving such recognition without the series’ made-for-TV appeal. It also proved, in the depths of the WRC’s despair, that there was an appetite for top-class rallying not only among the competitors and organisers, but also among motor manufacturers and fans.

Rally of Scotland brought classic stages back to life

The curtain has now fallen upon the IRC, but its place in the sport’s history is secure. For the team behind this remarkable series, the future remains bright in the shape of the FIA European Rally Championship – a series which we shall be watching closely in 2013, along with the IRC’s many fans around the world.

Merci, boys and girls of the IRC. Merci mille fois.

 

Nasser wins but Mikkelsen triumphs

The Rally Cyprus was a momentous occasion, being the last time that an event would run under the banner of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. It also gave us two cracking performances.

As expected, Andreas Mikkelsen took the initiative in his Škoda UK-funded Fabia S2000 as he determined to take his third win of the year to crown a season which saw him become the only two-time champion in the IRC’s history. But it was not to be: a pair of punctures on the first full day put him two minutes in arrears of the Ford Fiesta RRC driven by Qatar’s number one driver, Nasser Al-Attiyah.

Mikkelsen and Fløene sealed their second title in Cyprus

A thunderous recovery drive saw Mikkelsen claim eight stage victories and close to within 49 seconds of the Qatari, but more punctures blunted his challenge on the final day and the Norwegian was forced to settle for second place – albeit enough to secure the title. The final stage saw Mikkelsen hand over the steering wheel to his longtime co-driver Ola Fløene, who used his privilege to drive the last competitive kilometres of his career before heading into retirement.

It was a fitting salute for Fløene and a great end to the inspiring story of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Be ready to see much more of both Mikkelsen and Al-Attiyah in the 2013 World Rally Championship.